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Portland school budget passes by 4-1 margin; turnout disappoints

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Portland school budget passes by 4-1 margin; turnout disappoints

PORTLAND — More than 80 percent of voters on Tuesday supported the $91.3 million school budget, which will take effect July 1.

School leaders interpreted the 1,704 to 398 vote – a 4-1 margin – as a sign the public is regaining trust in the School Committee, following several years of budget overruns and high-profile missteps by some former committee members.

"There has just been a lot of community confidence about the budget process this year," committee member Kate Snyder, who led the finance committee, said. "People tend not to pay as much attention when they think that everything is going OK."

The 2,100 people who voted, however, represented only 4.6 percent of the city's estimated 46,000 registered voters, raising questions about the necessity of a voter-approved budget.   

School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said work will likely begin on the 2011 budget sooner, rather than later. 

"I greatly appreciate the confidence of those who voted," Eglinton said. "I'm anxious to get to work. Next year's budget is expected to be more difficult, so we're going to have to start the budget process earlier than we did this year."

The $91.3 million budget represents a 2 percent increase over current spending. However, an increase in state subsidy will reduce the local tax burden by $1 million, or 1.5 percent.

The budget eliminates 17 jobs and reassigns teachers to areas the School Committee believes are in greatest need. The committee has said the budget also lays the groundwork for multi-year budgeting for curriculum, technology and transportation.

A $50,000 line item will pay for a coordinator to study implementation of an elementary-level world language program, which was cut several years ago. Another $100,000 is proposed for administrative support for incoming Superintendent of Schools James Morse, who starts July 1.

The budget also includes a $600,000 payment to the city's fund balance, which has been tapped to close budget deficits from 2007 and 2008. The district will still owe $270,000, a sum that could be paid off at the end of the year if the district realizes a projected $700,000 surplus.

The school budget referendum is a requirement of the state's school administration consolidation law. Residents must vote on the local share of the budget, which in Portland this year was $87.2 million. The vote is intended to increase budget transparency. 

City Clerk Linda Cohen said she was disappointed – but not surprised – by the low voter turnout. She noted that only 422 people voted last week in Lewiston's budget referendum.

"We were kind of hoping that because it was the second year that people would know about it and show up," Cohen said. 

Last year, 8 percent, or 3,542, of the approximately 46,000 registered city voters cast ballots on the school budget. That election also included $19.2 million school bond, while this year the budget was the only question.

Last year's referendum cost between $25,000 and $30,000 because the city opened 16 polling stations, or roughly $8 per vote. Despite closing four polling stations, the votes got more expensive this year, about $9.50 each. 

A handful of residents on Tuesday said they were voting not because of their interest in the school budget, but to fulfill their civic duty.

Gore Flynn said he voted against the school budget, because he didn't see the need to have a special referendum on school spending. Instead, he believes the schools should have combined the referendum with the city's June 9 Charter Commission election. 

"I think (the budget referendum) is a good idea, but I'm concerned they have to make it a special election," Flynn said after casting his ballot at Central Square Baptist Church. "I didn't see the urgency. It's an unnecessary financial burden to bear." 

Barbara Hager indicated she was content to rubber-stamp the budget approved by the School Committee and the City Council. 

"I really believe they have been going through these budgets with a fine-tooth comb lately," Hagger said. 

At the Portland Expo, Jenny Galasso said she supported both the school budget and the referendum process. 

"Education is an area where we definitely need to be more proactive in letting people know what our schools need," said Galasso, who will be teaching in Portland this fall. "It's good for the public to know where they're money is going." 

Before the official tally was known, the verdict on turnout was already in some polling stations throughout the city. 

After 1 p.m., poll workers at Central Square Baptist Church on Stevens Avenue and Reiche Elementary School on Brackett Street said that only 50 or people had cast a ballot. Poll workers at the Portland Expo had worse news, saying that only 20 or people had voted. 

Nancy Parker, the Reiche ward clerk, summed up the poll workers' assessment of turnout. "Very, very, very, very low turnout."

Parker said she was surprised at the lack of West End voters at Reiche School, which typically has one of the stronger turnouts.

"This is a pretty politically active neighborhood," Parker said. "I'm surprised there hasn't been more (voters). Being a school, you'd think there would be even more."

Eglinton said he believes the community should be more involved in its schools, but questioned whether the budget referendum is the best method to elicit involvement, especially when the School Committee and the City Council, both of which are elected bodies, must approve the budget.

"I could see a time where the cost of holding a referendum would exceed the benefit," he said. "It would be more meaningful if more people showed up."  

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

 

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